It really didn’t matter what I said, I was no match for the Chihuahua.
When Carla Cantrell, the ebullient guidance counselor at Charles Ellis Montessori Academy, asked me to be a guest speaker at Career Day, I didn’t consider the competition.
I could only think, “Wow, this woman thinks I have a career? That’s amazing.”
I’ve been hanging around newspapers for a long time in the hopes that I would never have to figure out what I wanted to be when I grow up. The employment gods have shone brightly upon me recently by granting me a place on the Connect masthead, which must look very official to people who may not know that Bill DeYoung and I actually share a broom closet.
Surely I could convince a bunch of schoolchildren that talking on the phone and staring at the wall for long periods of time punctuated by bursts of frenetic typing is a respectable way to almost earn a living.
So I got all dressed up in what I imagined to be an extremely writerly outfit consisting of a blazer and unsensible heels. I considered sporting a pipe a la Hunter S. Thompson but couldn’t find any aviator sunglasses to complete the look.
Of course, wearing my pajamas would have been more authentic, but I was already under express orders from my son not to embarrass him.
I told him I couldn’t do worse than the plastic surgeon in Virginia who brought in a box of silicone breast implants to his kid’s school career day.
I thought I had my act all dialed in. Until I showed up at school and realized I’d have to follow a trademark lawyer who accompanied her presentation with delicious name–brand snacks and a veterinarian exploiting the cuteness of the aforementioned tiny, fluffy dog.
There was also a fireman in uniform and an aerospace engineer handing out Gulfstream swag. These people not only had real jobs, they had mad props.
I started to panic. What did I have? A pen and notebooks of varying sizes. Maybe I could have them recite their names into my digital voice recorder and play it back on the double speed setting? I could practically hear the eyes rolling.
Fortunately, the kids had been coached and/or bribed into asking questions about what I do at work (stare at Bill’s excellent collection of rock 'n’ roll photos, visit with the feral cats who live behind the building) and what path I took to my career field of choice.
I started to blather on about shouldering the noble task of keeping the public informed about important people and issues, but I realized I can’t stand it when grown–ups try to sound like they know what they’re talking about when they don’t.
The truth is, unlike my fellow Career Day speakers, I haven’t followed a career path so much as crashed around through the trees like a lost elephant trying to catch up to the herd.
As a result of a heavy diet of Kerouac and Bukowski, the only plan I had after college involved living in my VW van, where I composed angry poetry and read tarot cards at gas stations. Which actually worked out pretty well until the VW broke down.
I found a job at a newspaper, thus officially starting my vocation. If you’d told me when I was a penniless punk with a pen around her neck that I’d be holding myself up as an example as an employed writer with — holy hell, what a sellout — health insurance, I’d have spit on your shoes.
But this is a weird time to talk about the future of jobs and careers, even with elementary school students. They may not know about mass layoffs and unemployment statistics that hover in the double digits, but they can feel it.
A recent Daily Beast round–up of the most useless college degrees listed journalism number one, followed closely behind with literature, art, psychology and agriculture. A New York Times article examined the return of investment on advanced graduate degrees, concluding that taking out loans for higher education can pay off — in 40 years.
Even if you have a calling to a certain profession like medicine, engineering or God bless it, teaching, it’s more confusing than ever to make sense of the choices.
It occurred to me that Career Day might be as intimidating for the kids as it was for me. I asked them if they knew what they wanted to be when they grew up. A couple of fifth–graders were aiming for professional sports contracts and one second grader wanted to be President, but most of them shrugged.
I told them this was good news, because they had plenty of time to figure it out — their whole lives even. The world is changing fast, and no one knows what kind of skills will be needed in the future.
I reminded them to pay attention to what interests them, to be prepared to work hard and to read, read, read, because not only is it how to know what’s going on, it keeps me in business.
The Chihuahua got way more laughs, but I thought I was pulling it off until a boy with glasses raised his hand.
“You talk really, really fast,” he said somberly. “If the writing thing doesn’t work out, maybe you could be one of those people who sells things at auctions.”
I’ll keep that in mind. I also keep my tarot skills sharp, just in case.